“Once the word ‘sound’ was in the title, it opened up a kind of door”: A Conversation with Eric Weisbard
Last March, I attended the first Experience Music Project (EMP) Pop Conference in New York City. (See my pre-conference round-up for SO!, and my blog post for IASPM-US on my post-conference impressions.) Post-conference, I had the opportunity to interview Eric Weisbard, co-founder and organizer of EMP Pop Conference. One late March morning, we talked via phone about the story behind Pop Con, rock critics and academics, and the intersection of Sound Studies and Popular Music Studies.
Weisbard is currently a professor at the University of Alabama’s American Studies department. In addition to organizing Pop Con, he is also the Vice President of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (US Branch) and Associate Editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. He has also edited three collections of essays drawn from Pop Con presentations: This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project (2004), Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music (2007), and Pop When the World Falls Apart: Music in the Shadow of Doubt (2012).
In 2001, Weisbard was invited, along with his wife (rock critic and journalist Ann Powers), by the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle to organize their first rock music conference. “I was a grad-school-dropout turned New-York-media-rock-critic-guy” Weisbard explained, “and when I was asked to work on a conference my one framing idea was we will mix academics and non-academics.” The conference has been going strong for ten years now, and has expanded from Seattle to Los Angeles and, this year, New York City.
Part of Weisbard’s approach to Pop Con is rooted in his move from self-declared “grad-school-dropout” to music editor at The Village Voice and SPIN. Weisbard created the well-known Village Voice column “Sound of the City,” which he admits was inspired by Charlie Gillet’s 1970 book The Sound of the City. (Gillet’s book also inspired the theme of this year’s conference.) Weisbard saw in the conference a place where academics and non-academics alike could converse together about music. He pointed out, “this is a place where there’s room for enthusiasm, for intellectual work, but we call it a pop conference; we won’t put barriers to the ability of the ordinary person to come and put something out. The last few years it’s become a free conference, an important step to making it accessible and not just for academics.”
Considering the location of the conference, I asked him what the soundscape of this year’s Pop Con sounded like to him, in retrospect. Three things stood out to Weisbard: the collision of cultures in New York City’s soundscape, the sound of media (embodied in the voices present at the conference), and the music that came from the conference rooms. Weisbard reflected:
“For me, I might point to three things: the most familiar and most cliché is the cultural collision side of the New York City soundscape. You’d have a conference panel at 905/907 [at the Kimmel Center, where the conference was held]; every time I was there I’d hear music from below [….] Another aspect, which is more specific and maybe undertheorized, is the sound of media. I don’t mean media as abstract tools for disseminating information but media in terms of people who have to say clever things on a regular basis and who have to use words all the time. To me, that’s a very particular kind of sound. One of the things that’s interesting of being in New York, and having the non-academic side of the conference (which had been ebbing and is suddenly coming back full swing) is that from academics to journalists to people in the business, [it] was a loud version of my sonic memory of being a media guy in New York. Media chatter, a kind of chatter that’s loudest in New York. New York allows you to be face to face with people all the time [….] Number three is how music itself floated through the other two realms. You might hear a song, as an example, or one night I saw vaudeville songs of the bowery, a late night offering. [This could be in reference to Poor Baby Bree’s presentation during the conference.–Ed.] We’re not a music conference, we are a music writing conference, but nonetheless music is at the core. That would be third thing; typically you listen to music at a conference, at home, in car, and there are all more directly ways of listening to music. Music permeated things but at intervals. It’s appearance was not predictable. You didn’t know where it would pop up.”
Yes, music was everywhere, and so was sound. The title of this year’s conference opened up the conversation to Sound Studies Scholars. Weisbard pointed out, “when we came up with the theme, which is a riff on Charlie Gillett’s line on “the sound of the city,” we recast it as ‘Sounds of the City,’ in keeping with what we’ve always wanted to do at the conference, which is emphasize different kinds of music. In an interesting way, once the word ‘sound’ was in the title, it opened up a kind of door: in exactly the same way that being in New York we think about the city, when you think about cities you think about sound.”
From the beginning of the interview, Weisbard explained that he was still trying to understand what Sound Studies comprises and where it intersects with Popular Music Studies. More importantly, Weisbard pointed out that some may talk about Sound Studies to avoid associating with Popular Music Studies, which may point to a tension between the fields: “My biggest concern about the phrase ‘Sound Studies is that it is a defensive way for critics who think that if they talk about ‘Popular Music Studies,’ they won’t sound as serious.” Weisbard acknowledged that these questions of legitimacy have plagued Popular Music Studies for a while.
When I asked Weisbard about what Sound Studies can learn from Popular Music Studies, he admitted that he still didn’t have a clear grasp of Sound Studies to be able to offer a strong opinion. However, he shared an example of what he thought was a strong contribution to the field that was, also, accessible to people outside of the field: “The latest pop music collection, Pop When The World Falls Apart, has an essay from Martin Daughtry on listening as it’s undertaken by soldiers in Iraq. That was a presentation. When I saw the presentation as a 20-minute talk, I remember feeling more moved than any presentation on music I had ever heard. That’s where I feel like Sound Studies work can be as satisfying as any work on music [….] Daughtry wrote with a sense of almost confronting something terrifying, while trying to understand how people listen.”
The tension between the academic and the popular is something Weisbard grapples with in his own work. (He stated, “Anything that’s a purely academic version of how to present work is flawed and has to be challenged”). At the moment he is working on a book on commercial radio formats. He describes it as such: “I’m interested in how formatting music (different from genres) creates parallel mainstreams. I’m interested in how every button can represent a different construction of the middle.” For Weisbard, his academic work and the work he does as a rock critic bleed into one another. “It’s about using the rock critic’s ability to enjoy cultural weirdness” he said, “and the historian’s tendency to keep on digging and get to the bottom of it. I definitely see my work in conversation with people who are grappling with the nature of pop music in general. I love that the word “pop” emphasizes the commercial, trashy, places where it’s least likely called authentic, or [seen as an] embodiment of progressive values. It simply has to live or die on its own. I think academic work should too.”
What’s next for EMP? It will return next year to Seattle, but the theme has not yet been decided. In fact, Weisbard says that EMP’s return the year after is never a sure thing:”There was no guarantee in 2002 that we’d become big [….] The provisional nature [of the conference] is one of its best qualities. There’s absolutely nothing guaranteeing whether it comes again. There’s no organization attached to it, you don’t have a job from it. It depends on the people working. A gathering doesn’t work if people don’t come.”
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!
But to love this turf is love hard and unrequited.
To love L.A. is to love more than a city
It’s to love a language.
–“L.A. Love Cry” (1996) by Wanda Coleman
Los Angeles, an enigmatic metropolis to many who arrive here with a dream in hand and hope for a better tomorrow, still challenges historians, artists, and troubadours on how to best represent it. Poet Wanda Coleman, born in Watts, captures the pain and wonder of loving this city in “L.A. Love Cry.” Because the city is “hard and unrequited” one must also be willing to love its nuances and see it as“more than a city.” To love this city, “it’s to love a language,” a cultural immersion that goes beyond the seeming ease of words into the complexities of sound and rhythm.
Through a Museum Studies course I teach at Claremont Graduate University entitled Welcome to L.A., I introduce students to varied texts in which scholars and artists challenge the imaginaries created by outsiders, boosters, and apocalyptic cinema. Instead, the course readings present how we in L.A. actively engage with one another by fostering communities of creative praxis. For the students’ final project, they curate and develop educational programming for an exhibition at a local museum or art center. On May 3, 2012, this semester’s project, re : present L.A., opens at the newly-renovated Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM) located on the East Los Angeles College Campus. Showing works from over thirty artists from May 3-July 27, re : present L.A serves as an extension of the conversations we had in class, not only celebrating the interconnectedness of our communities but encouraging new associations and encounters within the visual and resonant space of VPAM’s Community Focus Gallery. For a look at the Virtual Exhibit Catalogue, click here.
In each exhibition for Welcome to L.A., I try to include something that challenges myself to think outside the white-box, per se, of the gallery. Given that we had read several texts that highlighted in the importance of music to build and uplift communities of color in Los Angeles, it was both important and necessary for me to include sonic elements in re: present LA that exhibits L.A.s vibrant musical legacy as intermingled with and fundamental to its visual culture. Among the challenges to document the cross-cultural connections between ethnic communities in Los Angeles is how to unpack what Anthony Macias calls “the cultural networks” that facilitated these exchanges through the music scenes at music halls, clubs, youth centers and record stores in Mexican American Mojo (10-11). Studies done by George Lipsitz, Macias, and Victor Viesca, provide readers a means to understand how the music in Los Angeles is much more than entertainment; it is political; it is a lifestyle; it defines spaces of multicultural interactions. In How Racism Takes Place, Lipsitz points out how integral the reclamation of space defined the political outlook and music in Horace Tapscott’s Arkestra based in South L.A. Viesca’s research documents the rise of an East L.A. rock sound, post-Los Lobos, that was defined by the activism of the Zapatista Movement and California’s Prop 187 through the work done at the Peace & Justice Center, Self-Help Graphics, and Regeneración.
Therefore, in order to engage both the history and the sound of Los Angeles’s musics with the city’s visual representations, I invited Rubén Funkhuatl Guevara from Ruben & The Jets, is a multi-threat musician, performer, writer, and producer, and Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (of Binghamton University, Sounding Out!, and of course, Riverside, CA) to curate playlists for a “sound booth,” which will consist of a stationary iPod™ Nano that gallery visitors can use at their leisure. The classic circular wheel allows the viewer to advance tracks or play the playlists on shuffle. Headphones will be set up so that the viewer can either focus on their listening experience or, listen while viewing the artwork around them. Since the gallery is relatively small, the pieces on the opposite wall are recognizable though are distant. In addition, Maya Santos of Form Follows Function will screen their short documentary on Radiotron, a youth center that presented Hip-Hop shows during the 1980s.
Guevara’s playlist Los Angeles Chicano Rock & Roll is included in the exhibition thanks to the Museum of Latin American Art. Stoever-Ackerman’s playlist Off the 60, unites the two spaces of East L.A. and Riverside through a mix of intra- and trans-cultural musical experiences. Guevara’s rock & roll selections highlight many of the bands that emerged in East L.A. Both the musical listings and the liner notes for the sound presentations will be accessible on the re:present L.A website when the exhibit goes live on May 3rd, 2012.
My sonic intervention in the white, often silent, spaces of the gallery was especially inspired by two recent precedents: the inclusion of the iPod™ in MEX/LA (2011) at the Museum of Latin American Art and Phantom Sightings (2008) at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. Both experiences invited me as a viewer to see the artwork through another sensory experience. The first time I saw music included in an exhibition not specifically about music (such as the Experience Music Project’s 2007 American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, or Marvette Peréz’s curation of ¡Azúzar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History) was LACMA’s Phantom Sightings, which garnered much critical acclaim and criticism due to the premise of presenting contemporary Chicano Art inspired ‘after’ the Chicano Movement. However, I want to focus on one aspect of the exhibition, a corner display with books that informed the curators’ conceptual approach and on the bookshelf was an iPod™. The iPod™ included playlists from some of the artists reflecting their inspiration for their artwork. I enjoyed listening and reminiscing while sitting in the gallery. However, I wanted the music to take more of a central role in the exhibition, especially because much of the artwork so obviously revealed traces of Los Angeles’ musical influences, partly due to the recent generation of artists who actively engaged in subcultural expressions and referenced it in their art. For example, as Ondine Chavoya describes in the Phantom Sightings catalogue, Juan Capistran’s The Breaks (2000) is a giclée print documenting the artist break-dancing on Carl Andre’s minimalist floor pieces. The guerilla performance then is presented through a series of twenty-five still images showing the various movements seen in how to break-dance books (125). Shizu Saldamando’s ink on fabric portraits of Siouxsie (2005) and Morrissey (2005) showcase how post-punk and new wave music from England is part of her life as an Angeleno (and that of her friends), yet the medium is reminiscent of pinto drawings. Saldamando also does portraits of her friends at clubs, backyard bbqs “documenting a world where identity is fluid” as Michele Urton describes in the catalog (197).
It would be another three years before MEX/LA would further marry music with art, now casting it in relation to the politics of Chicano and Mexican presence in Los Angeles. MEX/LA, among the many Pacific Standard Time exhibitions presented throughout Los Angeles, was among the best curated due to the range of artifacts representative of the city and the cultural production emerging in post-war L.A. Another striking element was the influence of Méxicano popular culture among Chicanos and vice-versa. As curator Rubén Ortiz-Torres, and associate curator Jesse Lerner write on the MoLAA website: “The purpose of the construction of a ‘Mexican’ identity in the South of California is not to consolidate the national unity of a post-revolutionary Mexico, but to recognize and be able to participate in an international reality, with all its contradictions and conflicts that this entails.” One of the ways this cultural exchange was embodied was in the playlists curated by Rubén Funkhuatl Guevara and Josh Kun that were prominently displayed alongside the artwork and heard in the interactive iPod™ “sound booths,” that invited viewers to sit on beanbags and listen. The music served to contextualize the art in relation to popular culture of the time. For example, Guevara presents a Chicano rock & roll genealogy that followed the chronology of the visual exhibit, 1930-1980, that begins with boogaloo and swing of the 1940s era culminating with the punk rock sounds of The Bags.
In both these exhibitions, the music served to complement the artistic elucidations of identity, race, and American popular culture seen in much of the artwork. The simplicity of the presentation was due to the inclusion of a familiar object like the iPod™. What is surprising is that more exhibitions have not incorporated more sonic elements to engage viewers’ other sensory experiences beyond the podcasts, or cell-phone audio listening tours set up at most major museums. While musical playlists can serve as another didactic component of an exhibition like the more established audio tours, I am arguing for a different use of sound in museum space, one that provides a wider sense of agency, connection, and encounter with the visual elements on display rather than a one-way transmission of information. In the cases of MEX/LA and Phantom Sightings, the inclusion of iPods™ provided a tool to understand the cultural production of a “post-Chicano movement” generation of artists while at the same time enabling an experience that recognized—and resonated with—my bicultural experience.
Being that L.A. is a car culture moving to the rhythms of the radio waves, I’m always seeking to find synchronicity between music that feels me with joy and my work as a cultural worker. Part of my impetus to locate Los Angeles sonically in re : present L.A. was driven by the question: is it possible to capture my sonic landscape growing up in the city of Los Angeles that ranges from Hip-Hop – British Rock – Mexican Pop? The playlists curated by Guevara and Stoever-Ackerman are familiar to me personally. Stoever-Ackerman’s Off the 60, reminds me of the sounds of my youth, when KDAY and KROQ rocked the radio waves and my students banded together in my high school quad according to their favorite music – metal-heads, b-boys, alternative rock, and the cha-chas, who traveled across town every Friday night to Franklin High, where DJs spun L.A. disco. At home, the music was different. My mom and tías used to reminisce about their homeland every Sunday night through the variety show Siempre en Domingo, binding us to the t.v., religiously following the rising stars. Through the bi-lingual selections in Guevara’s Los Angeles Rock & Roll, there’s a familiarity of home and the music heard at backyard parties and quinceañeras.
By including my iPod™ nano, I bring together my lived experience as a cultural worker through the sounds of L.A. and activate the white walls of the museum. The playlists created by Guevara and Stoever-Ackerman serve to reflect the history of the community surrounding VPAM, as well capture the diversity of the city sonically re:presenting L.A. to our audiences. While the playlists can stand alone as audio curations in their own rights, I hope that they will engage audiences to rethink the relationship between music and art, and feel their lived experience inclusive within the museum.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and an adjunct lecturer in the Social Science Division of Glendale Community College in Glendale, California and in the Cultural Studies Program at Claremont Graduate School. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!